Next year, people with the guts to do it will be able to take guided tours across West Virginia's New River Gorge on a catwalk installed beneath the canyon’s world-famous bridge. The Park Service, area businesses, and adventurous park visitors have been waiting a long time for this.
The New River Gorge Bridge uses one of the world’s longest single-arch spans to carry U.S. Highway 19 traffic more than half a mile over a yawning chasm. This is the highest vehicle-carrying bridge in America. In fact, at 876 feet above the water, it is so high that you can parachute from it. BASE-jumpers by the score prove it on the third Saturday of October every year when the Bridge Day festival is held and state highway officials allow BASE-jumpers and pedestrians to use the bridge for a few hours. (Although many people think that the iconic bridge is part of New River Gorge National River, the bridge is actually owned and maintained by the state of West Virginia. It is the land around the bridge that belongs to the park.)
For many years now, local business interests, bridge aficionados, and adventure recreationists have been campaigning to make the bridge more accessible to park visitors. Six or seven hours a year, they’ve insisted, is simply not enough.
To date, efforts to get BASE-jumping opportunities expanded have gotten the lion’s share of publicity. The Bridge Day BASE Jumping Coordinators and parachutists from around America and the world have requested that BASE jumping be allowed from the bridge’s maintenance catwalk for a few days each year around Bridge Day time. BASE jumpers are also lobbying to have the bridge catwalk available for their use on additional weekends throughout the year. Since activities on the catwalk don’t interfere with traffic crossing the bridge, some even insist that BASE-jumping from the catwalk should be legal every day of the year.
While BASE jumpers continue their quest for more access, another use of the catwalk has moved into the spotlight. Soon after the bridge was opened in 1977, it became clear that lots of people would love to be able to walk across the canyon on the bridge’s maintenance catwalk. The 30 inch-wide, 3,030 foot-long ribbon of steel suspended 30 feet below the bridge and 850 feet above the river holds a fascination for many people that borders on obsession. People who rappel from it on Bridge Day describe their encounter with the catwalk as a world-class adrenalin-pumping experience.
According to New River Gorge National River Superintendent Don Striker (who has rappelled from the catwalk himself), catwalk tours were first proposed not long after Bridge Day was inaugurated in 1980. The Park Service endorsed the idea, and the feasibility of offering the tours was discussed as part of the General Management Plan process in the early 1980s. State ownership of the bridge proved to be a sticking point, so the tours did not materialize.
The situation changed dramatically after West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin was elected in 2004. Manchin endorsed the proposed catwalk tours as part of his administration’s broad policy to enhance economic development through more productive use of natural resources and public recreation facilities. Congressman Nick Rahall boosted the tours for the same basic reasons.
With the major impediment to catwalk tours removed, the park moved ahead with plans to get the tours up and running. After a careful study was conducted, a Fayetteville-based cooperative, Bridge Walk LLC, was selected as the tour concessionaire. The physical limitations of the catwalk and access points make it necessary to operate with only a single tour concessionaire.
An elaborate harness system and related safety precautions should make it nearly impossible for anybody to fall or jump off the catwalk during the tours. Still, walking across the chasm on that catwalk is something that acrophobic nightmares are made of, so this is one tour that is definitely not for everybody.
If you’ve got the guts to do it, you’ll have to wait a while. Bridge Walk LLC won’t begin offering catwalk tours until next spring.